Analyzing Victor Osimhen's slow start to life in Serie A

Victor Osimhen Napoli
Getty Images
The Nigeria international has not flown out of the blocks at Napoli as far as goals go, but that owes much to a shift in his tactical responsibilities

Sunday’s blank against Benevento – as Napoli came from behind against the resolute newly-promoted side in Serie A – saw Victor Osimhen’s goals per game ratio shrink ever so slightly.

The 21-year-old was peripheral for the most part, but it ultimately did not matter. Not when Lorenzo Insigne can find the top corner from outside the box with his weaker foot; not when Gennaro Gattuso can summon battering ram Andrea Petagna from the bench to intervene.

In those circumstances, the club can afford to absorb what is, for all intents and purposes, a slow start. Five games (four of them starts) have yielded just the solitary goal: a scuffed effort from outside the area that somehow managed to wrong-foot Marco Sportiello in the 4-1 thumping of Atalanta 11 days ago.

Whilst the transfer of the Nigeria international involved a club record fee and was the culmination of a protracted saga, Napoli were under no illusions; this was very much a long-term play.

Goal 50 Revealed: The best 50 players in the world

Osimhen is far from the finished article, as Gattuso himself acknowledged following his cameo in the opening day victory over Parma. Nevertheless, there is certainly a great deal of belief in Osimhen, both within the squad and in the dugout.  Whether the former AC Milan player and coach is the right person to coax more out of him though, is one of this season’s more intriguing questions.

The evidence of his first five matches does not exactly offer clarity in this respect.

Victor Osimhen Gennaro Gattuso Napoli Atalanta Serie A

In the aforementioned substitute appearance on the opening day, his performance was very well received, as he introduced Calcio fans to his bounding stride and boundless work ethic.

Despite a lack of direct contribution, his presence on the pitch served to stretch the game, helping Napoli to a comfortable win.

“He has a great attitude,” Gattuso gushed afterward. “We knew that Osimhen could give us another gear in the final 20-25 minutes today”

For the next game against Genoa at San Paolo, he was handed his first start as the Azzurri ran riot, hitting their visitors for six. Remarkably, amidst the flurry of goal activity, Osimhen was unable to find the net himself, or even get a shot on target. He however laid on the second for midfielder Piotr Zielinski with a silky back-heel inside the box, signposting his baptism into the collective with a solid all-round performance.

In the following game against Atalanta, Osimhen finally put it all together, finding the goal to break his duck and crown a brilliant first-half. He seemed noticeably eager to shoot, often electing to have pops from acute angles, but on the whole he excelled at bringing others into play, and ran La Dea’s back three ragged all game long.

If the expectation was that, with the monkey off his back, he would kick on, it has proved misguided. Two games on, he has not found the back of the net again; a concern, considering not only the club’s outlay and the fact he has integrated surprisingly well already, but also his scoring record over the last 18 months.

So what gives?

Victor Osimhen Hirving Lozano Napoli 2020-21

Of course, Serie A is a tougher division to come to terms with than Ligue 1, where Osimhen was off the mark from the off and never looked back. That must be taken into account in any analysis. However, watching Napoli play is instructive; the problem is not quite that simple, and the root of it is more internal than external.

First, consider how Napoli have played over the last couple of seasons.

A staple of their attacking framework from the days of Maurizio Sarri – the classic Napoli goal, if you will – was Insigne receiving the ball on the left, cutting inside on his right foot, and curling the ball over the top and to the back post. There, Jose Callejon would arrive on the blind side of the defence, volleying the ball back across goal for the striker to tap in.

It was simple, but devastatingly effective.

However, Callejon departed this summer, and so essentially Napoli have lost that little automatism. His place in the side is shared between Hirving Lozano and Matteo Politano, neither of whom were a part of the Sarri side.

Hirving Lozano Napoli Atalanta Serie A

Even more pertinently, both have a preference for moving into the centre of the pitch as opposed to holding the width and servicing the centre-forward; Politano in particular has a fondness for cutting inside and blasting the ball goalward.

With Insigne coming inside from the left and Dries Mertens fielded in the no.10 spot, that’s three attackers all focused on getting their own shots away, and also contributing to a lot of crowding between the lines.

The upshot of this is that Osimhen’s movement and general play is geared toward creating space for the attacking midfielders: he is tasked with making a lot of runs into the channels to create depth, as well as with holding the ball up with his back to goal in order to compensate physically for the diminutive trio. Napoli signed a poacher, but they’re re-tooling him to fit as a target man.

It is no surprise then that, despite his slow start in front of goal, Gattuso has continued to affirm his satisfaction with Osimhen. After the Genoa game, Gattuso praised him for “creating the situations that allowed others to score”, and referred to him, tellingly, as the “missing link”.

It is all very selfless, but the message is clear: he may be the club’s record signing, but the man signed from Lille is by no means the top dog at Napoli just yet.